First-generation students address challenges of breaking the cycle


Jack McClellan

Beau Mohr, a sophomore in marketing, and Mohamed Saidu, a freshman in management information systems, pictured outside the Student Services Building, which houses the TRIO offices.

Attending Iowa State to build a future for herself after a turbulent adolescence, marketing sophomore Beau Mohr is one of many first-generation students at Iowa State.

Mohr, a sophomore majoring in marketing, said not having people in her family to help guide her through her early college experience was challenging, but talking to the right resources made the process easier.

Mohr came to Iowa State from Mapleton, Iowa, a small farming community south of Sioux City. She said her father was killed when she was a high school junior, and her mother could no longer take care of her and her siblings.

Mohr said her grandmother and other family members have helped answer many of her questions. She said having adult figures in her life is helpful. While they act as somebody to fall back on, they also push her to pursue her education and find her place in the world.

“They’re like, ‘Go do what you want to do,’ like ‘we’re here because we don’t want you to get stuck here,’” Mohr said. “‘So go study abroad, go try out new things, go start a business,’ like ‘We’re here for you, you can always come back home.’”

Mohr said it is important to maintain a balance between herself and other people in her life. She said there are always people to question what she’s doing and try to influence her, but she makes sure to take care of what she needs for herself.

Mohr said she sometimes has doubts about what she is doing at college, but she remembers what she is trying to build for herself.

“If I wasn’t here, I would probably be stuck working in a nursing home or working a gas station job or stuff like that, and I know I want to be better than that,” Mohr said. “So that’s why I’m here, to get an education and put myself out there in that way.”

Mohr said beyond wanting to go to college to build a future for herself, she wants to inspire her siblings to take similar paths.

“I want to set a role model and make a brighter future for my sister, and my brother, he’s older than me and he’s doing fine, but like he never went to college,” Mohr said.

She said while there were not many people around to help her break the cycle, she wanted to be around to help other people in her life.

Robert Lipsey, director of TRIO Student Support Services, said while first-generation students take on the same tasks and responsibilities as legacy students, they sometimes lack the support systems and family experience that many legacy students benefit from.

“So that’s why a service like ours is important,” Lipsey said. “We can kind of fill in those gaps.”

TRIO Student Support Services is a program on campus that serves first-generation and low-income students as well as students with disabilities.

Lipsey said having been a first-generation student himself and currently supporting his own kids through college. He often knows students’ questions and concerns before they arise.

Lipsey said in his position, he works to help first-generation students adapt to college first by making relationships. He said he often works with students on balancing their home lives with what they are working to accomplish at college.

Lipsey said TRIO serves 250 students, but there are probably 8,000 to 9,000 students on campus who qualify for the program, either as first-generation, low-income, or students with documented disabilities.

Lipsey said many first-generation students come from rural backgrounds and farming communities and are forced to choose between going home and helping the family or focusing on academics.

“We’ve worked with students to have these conversations with their loved ones back home and having them help the parents, or whomever, understand that the college is first, academics is first and everything else is secondary,” Lipsey said.

He said those types of decisions can be hard when family members do not have the same level of understanding of the college experience and expectations.

“So it’s just different— different expectations, different mindset,” Lipsey said. “I think as first-gen’ students, we’re oftentimes wondering what everyone else is wondering, as opposed to being able to be free in our journey, at least up until a point.”

Mohamed Saidu, a freshman majoring in management information systems, said going to college was always a dream. He said even though his parents had received their own education, it was not to the extent of where he is now.

Saidu said he immigrated to the U.S. from Liberia when he was two years old, first moving to Wisconsin for several years, then to Des Moines, Iowa, where he went to East High School.

He said he chose to come to college not only because his family impressed the importance of education on him, but also because he saw it as a means of securing a better future for himself and his family.

“Where I come from, especially the high school I went to— East High School Des Moines Public Schools, you don’t see too many of me here, and if you do, it’s like ‘Wow, you actually made out,’” Saidu said. “I think it really pushed me just knowing my motivation of: I like to lead people [and] I like to meet people and I love to learn.”

Saidu said coming to college has also helped him develop a new bond with his parents, and seeing them help support him has made him realize the trust and care they have for him and the rest of his siblings.

With four younger sisters, Saidu said he hopes to set a good example and encourage them all to attend college.

“So I’m seeing my sister, she’s taking her ACT and she’s getting a way better score than me,” Saidu said. “She’s putting in that studying, and I’ve seen that impact on how I’m here and how I’m studying. I’m like, ‘Yo, you got it dude, you’re far better than where I’m at.’”

Saidu said being the first person in his family to attend college in the U.S. is both challenging and rewarding.

“So it gets challenging, but again, especially being that first one, like you can make mistakes, but then it’s like, ‘Okay, like what can you do to fix them?’” Saidu said. “When my siblings do get here, I had that experience where my parents never did where I’m able to help them.”

Saidu said TRIO has been very helpful in teaching him about the different services and resources available on campus. He said while he still probably could have managed without TRIO’s support, he would have had a much more difficult time.

“It’s I like to say it’s not even like a building. I call it like a family,” Saidu said. “A sense of like, just not another building on campus. It’s like a home away from home that you can go to.”

Antonio Chavez, a senior majoring in political science, said when he first came to college he really did not know what to expect.

“It’s always just kind of like been an expectation to my parents that I go to school, do well, and [and] I was a good high school student, I’m still a good student now,” Chavez said. “It’s just like, I never really know what’s what’s coming next.”

Chavez said his father always told him that he wanted Chavez to be something, accomplish things and take advantage of the opportunities his father did not have.

“There’s like a little bit of guilt in there because my parents never got to go to school,” Chavez said. “They never got to pursue education. So I feel like I owe it to them to do it.”

Chavez grew up in Davenport, Iowa, but his parents immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico, before he was born. Chavez said his parents work hard to support him but sometimes struggle to understand the significance of the work he’s doing at school.

Chavez said he came to Iowa State as an undecided major, not knowing what to pursue academically. He said he saw it mostly as a means of increasing potential earnings in the future.

“I had, like, absolutely no concept of what college even was like,” Chavez said. “I didn’t know how like the daily schedule was gonna go. I went on a couple of visits, but it kind of just went in one ear and out the other.”

Chavez said during his freshman year, he struggled to find motivation, especially being in an environment without guidance.

“Figuring things out for yourself is very difficult,” Chavez said. “But it’s very important to find resources, I think would be a good piece of advice.”

Chavez said he first got involved with TRIO during his sophomore year when a friend from his hometown told him about the services the program offers.

“It’s just like a very good resource for anybody, and I’ve found it to be a really good resource for me,” Chavez said. “So I work here now as a peer mentor, so in just a short year, completely kind of turned my perspective of college around like I’m more involved now. I think this really helped, just getting one solid support system.”